Tag Archives: recommended

Somewhere Out There

I recently finished the visual novel Out There Chronicles: Episode 1.

Screenshot of the female spaceship captain Nyx and the possible dialogue responses open to the protagonist

In case you’re unaware, visual novels are a game genre originally from Japan that are essentially digital Choose Your Own Adventure games. There’s music and perhaps some simple animation, but otherwise the game part is just choosing out of a short list of responses or actions.

Being from Japan, the vast majority of visual novels use the same visual style you would be familiar with from anime and manga and Japanese video games, and being relatively cheap to make, the vast majority are shit. The creative outlay, after all, is just still images, music, and text. You don’t even need any fancy programming as there are game maker programs out there where you can just drop your files straight into a framework and then it’ll spit a game out right quick.

Of course, there’s no reason that visual novels must inherently suck or all be about who’s dating whom in a fictional Japanese high school. I liked this one that I played. You, the protagonist, wake up from suspended animation a million years in the future on the planet America, home of what may be the last humans in the universe. You make your way through this strange society to find out what happened to your own colony ship, the Europa, while trying to hide what exactly happened before Earth died and everyone ran for it.

A spaceship flits through the alien sky over a purple desert landscape as a yellow sun illuminates the scene

What did I like in particular? Well, the visuals are arresting and distinctive, not just for the look of the characters but for the environments they move in as well (the void of space, a futuristic park, a giant restaurant tree). It’s obvious how constrained the choices were but I didn’t feel as railroaded as I should have, since the narrative was compelling enough that the choices presented were the ones I wanted to choose anyway just so I could see what happened next.

Anyway, this is only the first episode. There will be more to come. As with all serialized storytelling, the makers may shit the bed in later installments, but for now I’m anticipating the next episode. Thumbs up from me.

The war of two worlds

I’m finally up to date on Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series. It’s about a hidden family who can travel between parallel universes – our world and one that’s still in a quasi-medieval level of technology. They use this power to smuggle drugs and shit and have become rich and powerful in two worlds.

The series was mostly written in and is set during George W. Bush’s War on Terror years, and it’s almost nostalgic to read paranoid descriptions of Dick Cheney’s secret intelligence empire. Old Dick is in the series as an unseen antagonist, by the way, though he is referred to by his Secret Service codename WARBUCKS (Dubya is BOY WONDER).

It gets pretty crazy by the end. Cheney was apparently in the pay of the worldwalkers back in the 80’s so when their existence is revealed, he moves to exterminate them to hide all evidence of his corruption. There’s blowback, the interdimensional narcoterrorists steal a backpack nuke, and the White House along with Bush II explodes in nuclear fire.

But the USA has unlocked the secret of worldwalking and retaliates by carpetbombing the other world with nukes. Some of the narcos manage to escape to a third parallel world, one where New Britain rules the Americas. The 44th President of the US is Dick Cheney, who dies not long after taking office. The 45th President is John Ashcroft. And thus ends the first series.

Anyway, the story had been on hold for a while, and I can see why. Where can things go from here? Well, in the first book of the sequel series, things have gone in a completely different direction. It’s now 2020 and the worldwalkers have ensconced themselves in the government of New Britain. They live openly as interdimensional travellers, occasionally returning to our world to steal technology. They’re frantically developing the industry of their new country as a bulwark against the coming of the Americans. The United States is now even more of a militarized panopticon society, a kind of digital age Soviet Union where smartphones occupy the role of Stasi informants.

And now the stage is set for the rest of the Empire Games series. Worlds collide! I’m actually rather interested in what comes next.

And on that note, happy Labour Day weekend, ye workers of the world.

Gen X and the 21st Century

Thanks to a possible gas leak last weekend I watched more movies than I’d planned on. (My house is fine bee tee dubs).

So, Valerian. It reminded me of reading a French sci-fi comic book in that it looked good but the story was thinner than the toilet paper in a public bathroom. I actually fell asleep during the souk shootout, mostly because I didn’t really care if the characters made it. I don’t need to enumerate the rest of the movie’s shortcomings since they’ve been covered well by others already, but it’s no Transformers. I think this will be decent enough to watch when it ends up on Netflix.

Now, Atomic Blonde, that’s a very stylish movie. It’s like 70% style, 30% substance, and 110% Charlize Theron. Actually, maybe I should run my numbers again since it actually did make more sense than, say, Sucker Punch. But despite the Cold War setting it’s not an 80s spy thriller so much as a Gen X nostalgia fantasy movie (i.e., it’s nostalgic for the 80s but for a fantasy version of it where it’s all sexy people with meaningful jobs doing things that matter in between making out with each other).

I hadn’t realized before how tall Charlize Theron was but the movie made sure we noticed this in almost every scene she was in. I appreciated this reminder of her physical presence since this made it more believable that she could engage in hand to hand combat with large angry men. I also appreciated that the movie was conspicuous in showing her looking for weapons every time she would throw down, even if it’s as simple as a bunch of keys clutched in her fist, since weapons do a lot to make fights more equal.

One thing that did take me out of the movie was the selfie in the beginning. People didn’t take selfies with film cameras unless there was a mirror involved, dammit. Otherwise you wouldn’t know if you were in the frame until you got the pictures back a week after you dropped the film off, which might be months after you originally took the picture if you didn’t use your camera a lot and took forever to use up a roll of film. Also, I don’t want to imagine how much work it would take to edit a tape recording in a hotel room, considering it’s already a bitch with digital files under ideal conditions.

But whatever, it’s a minor point. My take away? I liked Atomic Blonde.

Tales of the City

Book cover of Imaginary Cities showing a futurist rendering of a shining white city of skyscrapers with a crowd of tourists in 1930s clothing gaping at the panorama

I am in the midst of reading Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson. The best description of it is one that it provides – a nonfiction version of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It’s just as hard to describe as the latter book. Basically it’s a collection of short essays loosely grouped around certain themes regarding cities of fiction and dream and myth and architecture.

Well, perhaps “essay” is the wrong word as essays traditionally argue for a point of view, whereas in this book the pieces mostly wander back and forth through Samuel Coleridge and Le Corbusier and Judge Dredd and whatnot. Reading it is like reading Calvino’s book. I think my favourite piece so far is the one about science fiction stories of cities ruled by women – both the ones written by men that are panicked screeds about feminism and the smaller number written by women that seriously try to imagine egalitarian societies.

My biggest complaint at this point is that the book is quite Eurocentric. It would have been stronger if it at least included Asian notions of city building, as historically the largest cities in the world have been in Asia. If there’s a cyberpunk section later on that doesn’t mention Akira then I’m going to be disappointed.

Other than that, I like the book so far.

UPDATE JUL 29

I’m still reading Imaginary Cities but I’ve discovered I can only read a handful of the pieces at a time. They’re not difficult to read (the prose actually flows well), it’s just that there are all kinds of interesting ideas that I need time to ruminate over. Reading too much of the book at once would be too taxing for me.

I may need to buy a copy for myself since I have to return it to the library on August 3 and out of 570 pages I’ve only read 159. I can’t even renew the loan since there are a bunch of people after me that have put a hold on it. Ah well, such is life.

Sing, O Muse

DOOM's space marine protagonist fighting off an endless wave of demons

I had no idea that the Los Angeles Review of Books was covering video games but it seems obvious in hindsight. Games are texts in a literary theory sense, after all, as Wikipedia explains:

In literary theory, a text is any object that can be “read,” whether this object is a work of literature, a street sign, an arrangement of buildings on a city block, or styles of clothing. It is a coherent set of signs that transmits some kind of informative message. This set of symbols is considered in terms of the informative message’s content, rather than in terms of its physical form or the medium in which it is represented.

As texts, games are open to analysis like any other text. It was inevitable that their analysis would move out of the amateur space of student papers and personal blogs and into the formal world of published reviews after the generation that played video games was old enough to get PhDs in literature.

Anyway, the following article is an excellent analysis of the liberal democratic zeitgeist that’s valuable even if one has not played the video game being reviewed. It’s about the modern politics of rage as mediated through the 2016 reboot of the DOOM game franchise.

It’s all great, but here are some choice bits for the tl;dr brigade:

DOOMguy Knows How You Feel

The Union Aerospace Corporation [UAC] appeared as a futuristic defense contractor in the original game. In some not-too-distant, post-apocalyptic future, it has decided that the only path to a sustainable future for humanity is to literally mine energy from Hell. Shockingly, this path to prosperity goes horribly awry. It is up to the newest incarnation of doomguy to sort it out, mostly through destroying key objects, ignoring proffered advice, and murdering a dizzying assortment first of zombified ex- (post-?) UAC employees and then, well, the demonic legions of Hell itself . . .

Games are machines for producing affect, and the affect the public most fears in games is rage . . . The DOOM Emotion Machine pushes you to move beyond mere expression of rage, not just inchoate, unfathomable rage, not just rage at any old thing or the nearest narratively acceptable target, but to feel free to rage at the people who brought you here, rage at their apologists, rage at the idiocy of HR, rage at the plodding stupidity of looking for one more source of “dead labor” . . . Rage at Hell but rage at who brought you to Hell and why any of this is necessary at all . . .

DOOM wants you to consider that when “they go low,” you will scrape the pits of Inferno to go ever lower. DOOM wants you to feel more. But — and perhaps this is sheer, irrational hope on my part, a shard of redemption in a game of bleak glee — DOOM wants you to remember that it is all so stupid. That all of this is instrumental, that the only way out is through, but that this is brutalizing to the world and to yourself. In my most hopeful moment, I think DOOM has old Spinoza on the mind: learn to feel joy in the world again and yes, learn to feel joy in the pain of enemies but remember that it is just — in a measure of mere magnitude — a lesser joy than in the flourishing of friends.

This is some goddamn top shelf games writing. A thousand aggregated Metacritic scores could not encompass the informativeness of this review.

Also, if you’re keen to peruse the magazine’s other video game essays, I recommend Something is Rotten in the State of Lucis: On “Final Fantasy XV”, which analyses the political philosophy of Final Fantasy XV, with especial regard to Hamlet and Americana. I probably won’t ever get FFXV, but this review is well-written enough to give a non-player much to ruminate on.

Old Man Logan

I saw Logan and was moved. A superhero movie made me feel something besides glee when the bad guys got their asses kicked! This is unprecedented. That final X almost brought me to tears. I saw the movie twice in the theatre, which is something I very rarely do.

You know, in the comics whenever the X-Men travelled to the dystopian fascist future it always looked ridiculous and cartoonish, whereas in this movie it’s almost painfully plausible. The Guardian‘s review called Logan “a feral howl of rage”, which pretty much is the prevailing mood in a lot of the US today.

Yet this movie was made while Obama was still president, and let’s not pretend Hillary would have done more than half-assed work in reining in the neo-feudal society the obscenely wealthy keep trying to bring about. It’s like Aliens vs. Predator said: Whoever wins, we lose.

The rage of the movie is not merely the rage of the decent despairing at the rise of the despicable, but also the rage of the dispossessed wailing at the cruelty of the world.

Logan is many things, but one of those is a cri de coeur. I recall what Marx said of religion:  “[It] is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. For good and ill, one can also say that of art.